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Chapter 26

The next phase in the unrolling vision was the episode of her return to
New York. She had gone to the Malibran, to her parents--for it was a
moment in her career when she clung passionately to the conformities,
and when the fact of being able to say: "I'm here with my father and
mother" was worth paying for even in the discomfort of that grim abode.
Nevertheless, it was another thorn in her pride that her parents could
not--for the meanest of material reasons--transfer themselves at her
coming to one of the big Fifth Avenue hotels. When she had suggested it
Mr. Spragg had briefly replied that, owing to the heavy expenses of her
divorce suit, he couldn't for the moment afford anything better; and
this announcement cast a deeper gloom over the future.

It was not an occasion for being "nervous," however; she had learned too
many hard facts in the last few months to think of having recourse
to her youthful methods. And something told her that if she made the
attempt it would be useless. Her father and mother seemed much older,
seemed tired and defeated, like herself.

Parents and daughter bore their common failure in a common silence,
broken only by Mrs. Spragg's occasional tentative allusions to her
grandson. But her anecdotes of Paul left a deeper silence behind them.
Undine did not want to talk of her boy. She could forget him when,
as she put it, things were "going her way," but in moments of
discouragement the thought of him was an added bitterness, subtly
different from her other bitter thoughts, and harder to quiet. It had
not occurred to her to try to gain possession of the child. She was
vaguely aware that the courts had given her his custody; but she had
never seriously thought of asserting this claim. Her parents' diminished
means and her own uncertain future made her regard the care of Paul as
an additional burden, and she quieted her scruples by thinking of him as
"better off" with Ralph's family, and of herself as rather touchingly
disinterested in putting his welfare before her own. Poor Mrs. Spragg
was pining for him, but Undine rejected her artless suggestion that Mrs.
Heeny should be sent to "bring him round." "I wouldn't ask them a favour
for the world--they're just waiting for a chance to be hateful to me,"
she scornfully declared; but it pained her that her boy, should be
so near, yet inaccessible, and for the first time she was visited by
unwonted questionings as to her share in the misfortunes that had
befallen her. She had voluntarily stepped out of her social frame, and
the only person on whom she could with any satisfaction have laid
the blame was the person to whom her mind now turned with a belated
tenderness. It was thus, in fact, that she thought of Ralph. His pride,
his reserve, all the secret expressions of his devotion, the tones of
his voice, his quiet manner, even his disconcerting irony: these seemed,
in contrast to what she had since known, the qualities essential to her
happiness. She could console herself only by regarding it as part of her
sad lot that poverty and the relentless animosity of his family, should
have put an end to so perfect a union: she gradually began to look on
herself and Ralph as the victims of dark machinations, and when she
mentioned him she spoke forgivingly, and implied that "everything might
have been different" if "people" had not "come between" them. She had
arrived in New York in midseason, and the dread of seeing familiar
faces kept her shut up in her room at the Malibran, reading novels and
brooding over possibilities of escape. She tried to avoid the daily
papers, but they formed the staple diet of her parents, and now and then
she could not help taking one up and turning to the "Society Column."
Its perusal produced the impression that the season must be the gayest
New York had ever known. The Harmon B. Driscolls, young Jim and his
wife, the Thurber Van Degens, the Chauncey Ellings, and all the other
Fifth Avenue potentates, seemed to have their doors perpetually open
to a stream of feasters among whom the familiar presences of Grace
Beringer, Bertha Shallum, Dicky Bowles and Claud Walsingham Popple
came and went with the irritating sameness of the figures in a
stage-procession.

Among them also Peter Van Degen presently appeared. He had been on a
tour around the world, and Undine could not look at a newspaper without
seeing some allusion to his progress. After his return she noticed that
his name was usually coupled with his wife's: he and Clare seemed to
be celebrating his home-coming in a series of festivities, and Undine
guessed that he had reasons for wishing to keep before the world the
evidences of his conjugal accord.

Mrs. Heeny's clippings supplied her with such items as her own reading
missed; and one day the masseuse appeared with a long article from the
leading journal of Little Rock, describing the brilliant nuptials of
Mabel Lipscomb--now Mrs. Homer Branney--and her departure for "the
Coast" in the bridegroom's private car. This put the last touch to
Undine's irritation, and the next morning she got up earlier than usual,
put on her most effective dress, went for a quick walk around the Park,
and told her father when she came in that she wanted him to take her to
the opera that evening.

Mr. Spragg stared and frowned. "You mean you want me to go round and
hire a box for you?"

"Oh, no." Undine coloured at the infelicitous allusion: besides, she
knew now that the smart people who were "musical" went in stalls.

"I only want two good seats. I don't see why I should stay shut up. I
want you to go with me," she added.

Her father received the latter part of the request without comment: he
seemed to have gone beyond surprise. But he appeared that evening at
dinner in a creased and loosely fitting dress-suit which he had probably
not put on since the last time he had dined with his son-in-law, and he
and Undine drove off together, leaving Mrs. Spragg to gaze after them
with the pale stare of Hecuba.

Their stalls were in the middle of the house, and around them swept
the great curve of boxes at which Undine had so often looked up in the
remote Stentorian days. Then all had been one indistinguishable glitter,
now the scene was full of familiar details: the house was thronged with
people she knew, and every box seemed to contain a parcel of her
past. At first she had shrunk from recognition; but gradually, as she
perceived that no one noticed her, that she was merely part of the
invisible crowd out of range of the exploring opera glasses, she felt a
defiant desire to make herself seen. When the performance was over her
father wanted to leave the house by the door at which they had entered,
but she guided him toward the stockholders' entrance, and pressed her
way among the furred and jewelled ladies waiting for their motors. "Oh,
it's the wrong door--never mind, we'll walk to the corner and get a
cab," she exclaimed, speaking loudly enough to be overheard. Two or
three heads turned, and she met Dicky Bowles's glance, and returned his
laughing bow. The woman talking to him looked around, coloured slightly,
and made a barely perceptible motion of her head. Just beyond her, Mrs.
Chauncey Elling, plumed and purple, stared, parted her lips, and
turned to say something important to young Jim Driscoll, who looked up
involuntarily and then squared his shoulders and gazed fixedly at a
distant point, as people do at a funeral. Behind them Undine caught
sight of Clare Van Degen; she stood alone, and her face was pale and
listless. "Shall I go up and speak to her?" Undine wondered. Some
intuition told her that, alone of all the women present, Clare might
have greeted her kindly; but she hung back, and Mrs. Harmon Driscoll
surged by on Popple's arm. Popple crimsoned, coughed, and signalled
despotically to Mrs. Driscoll's footman. Over his shoulder Undine
received a bow from Charles Bowen, and behind Bowen she saw two or three
other men she knew, and read in their faces surprise, curiosity, and the
wish to show their pleasure at seeing her. But she grasped her father's
arm and drew him out among the entangled motors and vociferating
policemen.

Neither she nor Mr. Spragg spoke a word on the way home; but when they
reached the Malibran her father followed her up to her room. She had
dropped her cloak and stood before the wardrobe mirror studying her
reflection when he came up behind her and she saw that he was looking at
it too.

"Where did that necklace come from?"

Undine's neck grew pink under the shining circlet. It was the first time
since her return to New York that she had put on a low dress and thus
uncovered the string of pearls she always wore. She made no answer, and
Mr. Spragg continued: "Did your husband give them to you?"

"RALPH!" She could not restrain a laugh.

"Who did, then?"

Undine remained silent. She really had not thought about the pearls,
except in so far as she consciously enjoyed the pleasure of possessing
them; and her father, habitually so unobservant, had seemed the last
person likely to raise the awkward question of their origin.

"Why--" she began, without knowing what she meant to say.

"I guess you better send 'em back to the party they belong to," Mr.
Spragg continued, in a voice she did not know.

"They belong to me!" she flamed up. He looked at her as if she had grown
suddenly small and insignificant. "You better send 'em back to Peter Van
Degen the first thing to-morrow morning," he said as he went out of the
room. As far as Undine could remember, it was the first time in her life
that he had ever ordered her to do anything; and when the door closed on
him she had the distinct sense that the question had closed with it, and
that she would have to obey. She took the pearls off and threw them from
her angrily. The humiliation her father had inflicted on her was merged
with the humiliation to which she had subjected herself in going to the
opera, and she had never before hated her life as she hated it then.

All night she lay sleepless, wondering miserably what to do; and out
of her hatred of her life, and her hatred of Peter Van Degen, there
gradually grew a loathing of Van Degen's pearls. How could she have
kept them; how have continued to wear them about her neck! Only
her absorption in other cares could have kept her from feeling the
humiliation of carrying about with her the price of her shame. Her
novel-reading had filled her mind with the vocabulary of outraged
virtue, and with pathetic allusions to woman's frailty, and while she
pitied herself she thought her father heroic. She was proud to think
that she had such a man to defend her, and rejoiced that it was in her
power to express her scorn of Van Degen by sending back his jewels.

But her righteous ardour gradually cooled, and she was left once more
to face the dreary problem of the future. Her evening at the opera had
shown her the impossibility of remaining in New York. She had neither
the skill nor the power to fight the forces of indifference leagued
against her: she must get away at once, and try to make a fresh start.
But, as usual, the lack of money hampered her. Mr. Spragg could no
longer afford to make her the allowance she had intermittently received
from him during the first years of her marriage, and since she was now
without child or household she could hardly make it a grievance that he
had reduced her income. But what he allowed her, even with the addition
of her alimony, was absurdly insufficient. Not that she looked far
ahead; she had always felt herself predestined to ease and luxury, and
the possibility of a future adapted to her present budget did not occur
to her. But she desperately wanted enough money to carry her without
anxiety through the coming year.

When her breakfast tray was brought in she sent it away untouched and
continued to lie in her darkened room. She knew that when she got up she
must send back the pearls; but there was no longer any satisfaction
in the thought, and she lay listlessly wondering how she could best
transmit them to Van Degen.

As she lay there she heard Mrs. Heeny's voice in the passage. Hitherto
she had avoided the masseuse, as she did every one else associated with
her past. Mrs. Heeny had behaved with extreme discretion, refraining
from all direct allusions to Undine's misadventure; but her silence
was obviously the criticism of a superior mind. Once again Undine had
disregarded her injunction to "go slow," with results that justified the
warning. Mrs. Heeny's very reserve, however, now marked her as a safe
adviser; and Undine sprang up and called her in. "My sakes. Undine! You
look's if you'd been setting up all night with a remains!" the masseuse
exclaimed in her round rich tones.

Undine, without answering, caught up the pearls and thrust them into
Mrs. Heeny's hands.

"Good land alive!" The masseuse dropped into a chair and let the twist
slip through her fat flexible fingers. "Well, you got a fortune right
round your neck whenever you wear them, Undine Spragg."

Undine murmured something indistinguishable. "I want you to take them--"
she began.

"Take 'em? Where to?"

"Why, to--" She was checked by the wondering simplicity of Mrs. Heeny's
stare. The masseuse must know where the pearls had come from, yet it had
evidently not occurred to her that Mrs. Marvell was about to ask her to
return them to their donor. In the light of Mrs. Heeny's unclouded gaze
the whole episode took on a different aspect, and Undine began to be
vaguely astonished at her immediate submission to her father's will. The
pearls were hers, after all!

"To be re-strung?" Mrs. Heeny placidly suggested. "Why, you'd oughter
to have it done right here before your eyes, with pearls that are worth
what these are."

As Undine listened, a new thought shaped itself. She could not continue
to wear the pearls: the idea had become intolerable. But for the first
time she saw what they might be converted into, and what they might
rescue her from; and suddenly she brought out: "Do you suppose I could
get anything for them?"

"Get anything? Why, what--"

"Anything like what they're worth, I mean. They cost a lot of money:
they came from the biggest place in Paris." Under Mrs. Heeny's
simplifying eye it was comparatively easy to make these explanations. "I
want you to try and sell them for me--I want you to do the best you can
with them. I can't do it myself--but you must swear you'll never tell a
soul," she pressed on breathlessly.

"Why, you poor child--it ain't the first time," said Mrs. Heeny, coiling
the pearls in her big palm. "It's a pity too: they're such beauties. But
you'll get others," she added, as the necklace vanished into her bag.

A few days later there appeared from the same receptacle a bundle of
banknotes considerable enough to quiet Undine's last scruples. She no
longer understood why she had hesitated. Why should she have thought it
necessary to give back the pearls to Van Degen? His obligation to her
represented far more than the relatively small sum she had been able to
realize on the necklace. She hid the money in her dress, and when Mrs.
Heeny had gone on to Mrs. Spragg's room she drew the packet out, and
counting the bills over, murmured to herself: "Now I can get away!"

Her one thought was to return to Europe; but she did not want to go
alone. The vision of her solitary figure adrift in the spring mob of
trans-Atlantic pleasure-seekers depressed and mortified her. She would
be sure to run across acquaintances, and they would infer that she was
in quest of a new opportunity, a fresh start, and would suspect her of
trying to use them for the purpose. The thought was repugnant to her
newly awakened pride, and she decided that if she went to Europe her
father and mother must go with her. The project was a bold one, and when
she broached it she had to run the whole gamut of Mr. Spragg's irony. He
wanted to know what she expected to do with him when she got him there;
whether she meant to introduce him to "all those old Kings," how she
thought he and her mother would look in court dress, and how she
supposed he was going to get on without his New York paper. But Undine
had been aware of having what he himself would have called "a pull" over
her father since, the day after their visit to the opera, he had taken
her aside to ask: "You sent back those pearls?" and she had answered
coldly: "Mrs. Heeny's taken them."

After a moment of half-bewildered resistance her parents, perhaps
secretly flattered by this first expression of her need for them, had
yielded to her entreaty, packed their trunks, and stoically set out for
the unknown. Neither Mr. Spragg nor his wife had ever before been out of
their country; and Undine had not understood, till they stood beside
her tongue-tied and helpless on the dock at Cherbourg, the task she
had undertaken in uprooting them. Mr. Spragg had never been physically
active, but on foreign shores he was seized by a strange restlessness,
and a helpless dependence on his daughter. Mrs. Spragg's long habit of
apathy was overcome by her dread of being left alone when her husband
and Undine went out, and she delayed and impeded their expeditions
by insisting on accompanying them; so that, much as Undine disliked
sightseeing, there seemed no alternative between "going round" with her
parents and shutting herself up with them in the crowded hotels to which
she successively transported them.

The hotels were the only European institutions that really interested
Mr. Spragg. He considered them manifestly inferior to those at home;
but he was haunted by a statistical curiosity as to their size, their
number, their cost and their capacity for housing and feeding the
incalculable hordes of his countrymen. He went through galleries,
churches and museums in a stolid silence like his daughter's; but in the
hotels he never ceased to enquire and investigate, questioning every one
who could speak English, comparing bills, collecting prospectuses and
computing the cost of construction and the probable return on the
investment. He regarded the non-existence of the cold-storage system as
one more proof of European inferiority, and no longer wondered, in
the absence of the room-to-room telephone, that foreigners hadn't yet
mastered the first principles of time-saving.

After a few weeks it became evident to both parents and daughter that
their unnatural association could not continue much longer. Mrs.
Spragg's shrinking from everything new and unfamiliar had developed into
a kind of settled terror, and Mr. Spragg had begun to be depressed
by the incredible number of the hotels and their simply incalculable
housing capacity.

"It ain't that they're any great shakes in themselves, any one of 'em;
but there's such a darned lot of 'em: they're as thick as mosquitoes,
every place you go." And he began to reckon up, on slips of paper, on
the backs of bills and the margins of old newspapers, the number of
travellers who could be simultaneously lodged, bathed and boarded on
the continent of Europe. "Five hundred bedrooms--three hundred
bathrooms--no; three hundred and fifty bathrooms, that one has: that
makes, supposing two-thirds of 'em double up--do you s'pose as many as
that do, Undie? That porter at Lucerne told me the Germans slept three
in a room--well, call it eight hundred people; and three meals a day per
head; no, four meals, with that afternoon tea they take; and the last
place we were at--'way up on that mountain there--why, there were
seventy-five hotels in that one spot alone, and all jam full--well, it
beats me to know where all the people come from..."

He had gone on in this fashion for what seemed to his daughter an
endless length of days; and then suddenly he had roused himself to say:
"See here, Undie, I got to go back and make the money to pay for all
this."

There had been no question on the part of any of the three of Undine's
returning with them; and after she had conveyed them to their steamer,
and seen their vaguely relieved faces merged in the handkerchief-waving
throng along the taffrail, she had returned alone to Paris and made her
unsuccessful attempt to enlist the aid of Indiana Rolliver.

Edith Wharton